Happy Birthday to “Caligula,” the Sleaziest Costume Drama Ever Made

Caligula Malcolm McDowell & Helen Mirren in Caligula (Analysis Film Releasing Corporation)

The most expensive porn film of all time turns 40 this year & remains a body fluid splattered tribute to hubris & incompetence.

Pull up a holochair and let me tell you about the days long ago, the 1970s, when if you wanted to see images of naked bodies (let alone naked bodies rubbing up against each other), you had to leave the privacy of your home and buy them, either in a magazine, or at a movie theater. Despite the risk of embarrassing encounters with neighbors or co-workers, porn was a booming business back then, and nobody was raking in more money on it than Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and Bob Guccione. Hef cornered the market in presenting pornography as a tasteful pastime for distinguished gentlemen, something Flynt didn’t bother trying, and Guccione continuously fell short on. Guccione did triumph over Hef in one way, however, by producing the most expensive pornographic film ever made. Regrettably, that movie was Caligula.

Guccione wanted to produce a movie that could be shown in more than just dark, foul-smelling theaters with sticky floors, and luckily, he happened to run into writer Gore Vidal. Vidal wanted to make a serious historical drama about Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, nicknamed Caligula, one of the best known yet least interesting of the Caesars. I say this because Caligula was known for only one thing, and that was being a horrible person who did horrible things. It may not necessarily be accurate, but it’s what history has proclaimed, and it’s not like anyone’s going to suddenly pop up and provide irrefutable evidence that he was kind to animals and helped old ladies cross the street. Caligula lacks the “even Hitler loved his mom” duality of nature that makes villains fascinating. He seemed to emerge from the womb a murderous degenerate, and is boring as a character in the same way that people who are constantly happy and carefree are boring. 

“Degenerate” was all Bob Guccione had to hear before putting up the bulk of the cost to film Caligula, however, and his money paid for Italian shooting locations, costumes (for those characters who wore clothing) and set design, and even appearances from elder statesmen of cinema Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud. Rather than focus on Vidal’s original story of absolute power corrupting absolutely, Guccione wanted to focus more on what Caligula did in his off-time from being emperor of Rome, namely raping, killing, torturing and, most especially, engaging in (or watching) kinky, debauched sex. It’s easy to see how Caligula became such a bloated, appalling mess — in short, it could be blamed on the clash of egos between the notoriously cantankerous Vidal, who apparently didn’t realize that whoever provides the most cash for a movie has the most say over how it turns out, director Tinto Brass, who had his own, allegedly even more incomprehensible vision for the film, and Guccione, who just wanted to be taken seriously as an auteur, preferably while still being able to get away with money shots.

Eventually, both Vidal and Brass disavowed any association with the film, while Guccione, not certain that the finished product would draw in enough of an audience to recoup his investment, thought the best course of action was to add in several hardcore sex scenes. The scenes were spliced into the film with the style and finesse of someone jamming socks into an already overstuffed suitcase, and pushed Caligula up to a punishing two and a half hour long running time.

Malcolm McDowell in Caligula (Analysis Film Releasing Corporation)

Those of you who might have thought The Irishman was overlong and self-indulgent, I challenge you to watch a two and a half hour long pornographic film in which not a single person behind the scenes knew anything about filmmaking other than how to turn a camera on, and stop it from drifting towards a wall. Despite everyone involved in it blaming someone else for its failure, nothing, short of setting the film stock on fire and never speaking of it again, could have saved it. It fails as pornography, as a costume drama, and as a showcase for Britain’s hammiest actors. If you want to see what happens when hubris collides with incompetence and an inability to take no for an answer, watch The Room instead. Sure, that too contains numerous unpleasant sex scenes, but not nearly as many as Caligula, and it’s more than an hour shorter.

There are rumored to be up to eight different versions of Caligula, including one reported to be an astonishing three and a half hours long (or nearly twenty minutes longer than Schindler’s List). The only two that are currently available (though you might need to scour eBay for them) is an R-rated hour and forty minute cut, which is just boring, and an X-rated two and a half hour cut, which is boring and gross. If you want to feel like you’re having a stroke, this IMDB page lists all the various cuts, and what is or isn’t missing from them.

Malcolm McDowell, the only actor in the entire movie who looks like he’s having a good time (while some extras were caught rolling their eyes on camera), is Caligula, the Very Worst Boy in History. Though he’d rather spend his days frolicking with his sister, Drusilla (Teresa-Ann Savoy), Caligula is summoned by his grandfather, Tiberius (Peter O’Toole, made up to look like he’s dying of either leprosy or tertiary syphilis) and given the classic good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that Caligula will eventually succeed Tiberius as Emperor of Rome. The bad news is that Caligula will almost certainly be horribly murdered at some point (probably by people he trusts), because it’s basically all in a day’s work when you’re Emperor of Rome, which makes you wonder why anyone wants the job in the first place.

Tiberius’ adviser, Nerva (John Gielgud, who has the good sense to die less than twenty minutes into the movie), has some reservations about Caligula taking over, namely that he’s both childish, skipping around and throwing tantrums like Veruca Salt, and the kind of guy who celebrates a wedding by raping the bride and the groom. Nevertheless, after having Tiberius killed (which, honestly, Tiberius really should have seen coming), Caligula becomes Emperor, and the movie is a tedious look at his descent into power-mad insanity, doing such things as forcing his Senators to bleat like sheep and hail his horse, before the prophecy is fulfilled and he is, indeed, horribly murdered by people he trusts.

If you want to see what happens when hubris collides with incompetence and an inability to take no for an answer, watch The Room instead.

Much of the action that doesn’t involve graphic sex and/or violence is just characters walking around and talking in low, conspiratorial tones, occasionally broken up by McDowell screaming at birds or doing a bizarre interpretive march-dance. It’s easy to see why Guccione thought it needed more oomph, a little something to hold the audience’s attention. I will say this for him: he did not discriminate between women and men when it came to nudity in Caligula. Dicks are out all over the place, some flaccid, some erect, some cut, some uncut, some small, and some the size of geoducks. There’s also plenty of female nudity too, both full frontal, from the back, and every other angle you can imagine, much of it shot with all the eroticism of an instructional video on taking a pap smear. 

The thought process in watching Caligula goes from “Wow, there’s a lot of naked people in this movie” to “There’s too many naked people in this movie” to “I never want to see another naked person again” within the course of about a half hour. It’s a pornographic film that manages to make the mere idea of sex utterly repugnant. On the other hand, you could easily walk away from it for a half hour to go fold laundry, sort change, or stare blankly into the middle distance, come back and miss absolutely nothing, save for someone performing oral sex about as enthusiastically as reading a bus schedule.

I haven’t even gone into the outrageous violence, including a scene where a man’s penis is cut off and thrown to a pack of dogs. That, along with scenes like a grief-stricken Caligula licking his dead sister’s body, or a woman gleefully urinating on a corpse in glorious close-up, seems to illustrate a stubborn devotion to making the movie as off-putting as possible. Guccione didn’t want to titillate audiences, he wanted to shock them, but even shock requires a certain level of restraint. Otherwise, it just might as well be a bunch of dildos and fake blood launched out of a t-shirt cannon into the audience’s faces, which is exactly what watching Caligula feels like.

As of 2018 yet another cut was supposedly in the works, one that’s closer to director Brass’s vision, but as of this writing hasn’t been released. In January of this year, another version was announced, this one reportedly closer to Vidal’s version, and supposedly screening in theaters in the summer. The chances of that actually happening are similar to that of Morrissey and Johnny Marr reuniting for a Smiths tour: (a) extremely unlikely, and (b) who cares at this point anyway? Forty years later, and people are still trying to move the pieces around to make this monstrosity work. Guccione’s version is the one that’s still canon, however, for better or worse, and he did accomplish his goal. Indeed, he made the most expensive pornographic movie of all time.  It’s almost inspiring, really.

Caligula Trailer:

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